Speech, the Greatest Barrier to Communication

Over those millions of years since the Big Bang, many believe that evolution has done a rather spiffing job of turning us into the creatures we are today. We learned how to walk, to think, to learn, to fight and all in the name of survival. But why did we learn to talk and use language?

If we look at the modern human, it would appear that talking is a method of communication that aims to avoid any communication at all. With speech, we all have the ability to talk nonsense with friends, tell lies and generally blur the lines between conversation and noise.

Has this conversation ever happened between you and your boss?

Your boss: “Is the report ready?”

You: “Nearly!”

In this example, the ability to speak meant you replied without replying. If it weren’t for speech, you would have needed to say no. Probably by banging your club on the ground and not presenting a report you would have accomplished this.

This is all made so much clearer when we look at politics

Interviewer: “Is your party going to reduce interest rates next year?”

Politician: “Interest rates form part of our policy and following consultations with stakeholders a white paper will be released”

If the politician began humming whilst simultaneously releasing their belt buckle, they would have conveyed the same amount of information. But they didn’t, they decided to fill the gap with a combination of words that could have been the answer to any question ever asked about interest rates since 1973.

The fact of the matter is, speaking is not necessarily communication!

Take this excerpt from the popular 1980s TV programme, Yes, Prime Minister for example.

Although many fantastic words are used, they convey nothing more than one simple fact. The communication can be made in two words but a long speech is used. Of course this example uses exaggeration for comic effect, but many politicians of the time could relate to it.

It appears that the most versatile and potentially specific form of communication we have as humans is the one we use to confuse, deflect and mislead with!

How do you dig between opaque comments, bland statements and meaningless words? Firstly, you need to acquire the self-confidence to cut through the language.

An Admiral on a nuclear submarine, new to her role, sat her first meeting and understood none of the gobbledegook and acronyms that were being banded around the table with utter conviction. She asked questions about specifics, exact meanings and precise definitions. The trick was doing this in a way which seemed neither challenging or naive.

It soon became as clear as day that those people, at that meeting on a submarine carrying enough power to blow large parts of the world to radioactive dust, had little understanding of the discussion.

I’ve seen this with educators, engineers and technical experts at all levels. Radioactive disaster was not the potential danger here, however it did make you wonder how they all did a job when nobody understood each other.

Challenging with confidence is very much about knowing which questions to ask and how. Consultants need this, colleagues must acquire this task to manage their peers and suppliers need this with the same urgency as buyers, educators and their students.

Clear language shows a clear head and asking questions and the techniques of reflecting back, reading body language and voice intonation help to unearth any lack of clarity.

In the words of Beatrix Potter, “The shorter and the plainer the better.”

And when greeted by vague language, high-blown phrases or jargon, use your right to refine the art of questioning, a skill which is as vital as giving the right answers.

Have a look here at the programmes designed to help you and your people develop this ability.

Got an experience of being mislead with language?  Have a query about how to get behind the words?





5 New Boardroom Phrases That Disguise Incompetence

The 70s gave us unfortunate fashion, the 80s gave us questionable music tastes and the 90s brought along a whole raft of phrases for the boardroom that don’t actually mean anything.

If you’ve ever cringed at the moment you were encouraged to “think outside the box” or when bringing up a harsh reality being asked “how can the sky be the limit when there are footprints on the moon?”, you can always start introducing these new beauties either for comic effect or just plain fun.

1) “Tickle the salmon!”

A salmon has a strange existence which for all intents and purposes isn’t incredibly interesting. Tickling the salmon is about turning a boring situation into a happy occasion and is suitable for management decisions concerning monotonous work.

An example:

“Morale is low amongst the sales team downstairs”

“How can we tickle the salmon here?”

“We could loosen their straightjackets…”

2) “How can the sky be the limit when Einstein’s theory of general relativity states otherwise?”

If somebody is getting a little bit “creatively pumped” you snap them back to reality quite quickly with this little “never appropriate” number. You’ll get some funny looks yourself but it will take the focus off Mr Cliché.

An example:

“Let’s do some blue sky thinking, the sky is the limit!”

“How can the sky be the limit when Einstein’s theory of general relativity states otherwise?” Well…?


3) “Let’s create a problem onion”

All problems can be broken down into smaller problems that need to be solved before the main issue can be addressed so creating a problem onion helps us see that we need to attack an issue layer by layer. The word “onion” has no place in corporate doublespeak so it can help you stand out.
“Our employee turnover is very high compared to five years ago”

“It’s because of the new hiring policy”

“Which came in after we shuffled the HR department”

“Woah, there’s obviously a root cause here, let’s create a problem onion and work this out step by step”

4) “Let’s five-why it!”

To really find out where the problem lies, you should ask yourself “why” five times in a row and it’s likely you’ll end up with something closer to the real issue.

Saying “why” constantly at your sales director is likely to lead to your P45 being on your desk the following morning so we need a new way of introducing this idea at the board meeting.

“The flingle flangle no longer works and the meta-flump collapsed this morning. What’s going on?”

“Let’s five-why it!”

“I know what that means, let’s do that!”

5) “Down is the new up”

When sales figures are terrible and there’s no other way to justify it, you can act like it’s a good thing and quote “down is the new up”.

You can follow with, “this business has been successful year on year since 1976, are you scared of a little change? In recessionary Britain, down is the new up”

8 ways to get what you want from presentations

follow uupYou’ve just finished a fantastic presentation and people are gurgling with joy about you/your content/your services.

You get back to base expecting the phone to ring, your diary to be heaving at the seams and working out whether you need an office in New York and Hong Kong.

But it all falls flat as a pancake. Nothing. Nichts. De Nada. And you think ‘Was I imagining that enthusiasm?’

It’s very likely you weren’t but we’re goldfishes: as soon as we come away from the context of the talk, we remain with the shadow of the impact, not the full-on spirit of the moment. This means that you need to be proactive, if you want to pick up on opportunities to:

1. gather support for a plan;

2. acquire further knowledge or spread your own;

3. win business;

4. build networks of influence.

What I’ve gathered here are 8 ways you can create opportunities to get what you need.

The presentation may feel like a main course but often it’s the starter: the prelude to actually doing business. In conferences, you may have so many speakers that they all blend into each other.

Make yourself stand out and keep in the minds of your audience and influencers. Here are several ways that you can do this:

  1. use slideshare.com to post slides to them (the transcript of the slides appears underneath);
  2. post a survey.  Surveymonkey.com can do this easily and send it out to social networks;
  3. send an opt-in form to register interest in products or services. Research has shown that by getting people to indicate interest before you start ‘the sell’, sales can increase by as much as 50%;
  4. write a blog or, even better, have a member of the audience write and post one for you if you don’t have time. Sharing your knowledge with the audience, means that you can then catch it in your own blog, in the time it takes to buckle a belt;
  5. offer a follow-up webinar with a small group, individuals who want to go further into the details;
  6. arrange one to one’s with interested individuals or individuals you’re interested in meeting up with (scanning the audience list for opportunities before the presentation will allow you to catch your prey);
  7. catch names of attendees and have them on your mailing list so you can keep them as warm leads, instead of waiting for them to go ‘cold’;
  8. set up and invite attendees to a forum – online or offline – to exchange ideas and opinions about your content;

One or any combination of the above can help you to benefit from the opportunity of presenting so, no matter what happens on the day, you can still seize the moment and maintain the momentum, and who know: New York and Hong Kong may just be starting points…next, The World!


Breaking the Email Backlash

emailPeople do all sorts of things that can p!ss you off in emails, such as:

  • getting stroppy and obstructive;
  • being patronising and bossy;
  • ignoring you;
  • making trouble by copying in more people than necessary.

Here’s what to do:

Click here for an edited version of my workshop booklet, Breaking the Email Backlash.

The workshop you need to pay for as it’s hands on, personalised and face to face.  The download, though, is free.

Then, either pass this around through, say, HR, or use this email download as a signature for your own emails, thereby politely encouraging your recipients to polish up on their written communication skills.

Job done. Peace will reign.

Download here to get it immediately.

2 quick tips for productive meetings

Only too often, we sit in meetings, bored to tears by the tangential conversation, the conversation hoggers and the lack of relevance to the agreed agenda.

I’ve put together two magic tips you can use in your next meetings to save your time, increase engagement and maximise productivity.

How not to leak when you speak

‘How not to leak when you speak’ isn’t  about waterworks – yours, or anyone else’s you’ll be relieved to know – but how we unintentionally make certain gestures that unwittingly betray our messages.

Watch this 3 minute clip to find out what gestures you may make and how to overcome the seepage/leakage.

Either way it sounds disgusting. It’s not, though – you’ll see what I mean…


Want to add something on how we can seem more convincing and confident when communicating?  Drop your comment right down there:

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Does this make steam come out your ears?

Ah, the joys of email communication.

So many times, communication between people can break down simply because of how they’re using emails.

Ignoring how we use virtual communication when we look at relating to others, is like trying to run a car with a flat tyre: it’ll go but not very efficiently.

These three tips will keep that car away from the relationship breakdown garage, helping smooth the communication.

1. Irritation One: the words ‘should’:
For example, ‘You should let me know when you have authorisation for this and then I will action the request’. Similarly, replacing that with ‘have to’, which is even stronger, may start to annoy your recipient.

It could be seen as: patronising.

The Recommendation: replace ‘should’ and ‘have to’ with ‘You’ll need to’ or I’d strongly recommend that…’   This is easier to hear and act upon. It means the same without sounding like a finger-wagging parent.


2. Irritation Two: presumptuous wording such as ‘As you know…’ then adding totally new information that is unknown to everyone, but should have been known.

It could be seen as: someone covering their back

Recommendation: writing, ‘As you may know…’ and sticking to possibilities unless you can be certain.


3. Irritation Three: cc’ing in the boss, because you can’t get what you want from a colleague.
It could be seen as: trouble-making

Recommendation: if the communication is breaking down, go and see someone to get their advice. Usually, two adults should – excuse me – need – to be able to work it out between each other by saying:

a) what needs to be done and, perhaps, why the current situation could be problemetic

b) who will do it

c) finish with ‘As soon as you have this, I’ll be happy to help you’.

If the tone is constructive and respectful, there is less chance of being cold shouldered off line or email mud-slinging.


To know how direct you can be in English, without being rude or weak, look here:


Go here for three magic ways to get people off your back or…not, if you really want to annoy them:


Click on this link below, if you want to get requests acted upon quicker:


Got any email pains you want to get out there? Share and get them out your hair!

See you in the comments below!

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How to increase your ‘Presence’


It's all about connection

It’s all about connection

Some people seem to find catching the attention of others effortless, be it in a job interview, presentation or a meeting.

What is it they’ve got that other people haven’t?



What are the qualities that make some people more trustworthy, authoritative and persuasive?

The good news is that these qualities can be learnt…read on if you’re interested in getting other’s attention (without shouting or doing the Shimmy Shake).

Let’s imagine Eugene needs to stand in front of his business partners and persuade them to pool resources on a new venture.  He needs to appear more authoritative, trustworthy and persuasive so what qualities do you think are vital?

According to work conducted at the University of Lausanne. lead by Professor John Antonakis,  there are a set of twelve communication habits that Eugene would need to adopt.

When Antonakis was conducting the study of what would give people like Eugene that extra ‘zing’, he was actually looking at ‘charisma’.

The Latin root of ‘charisma’, ‘charis’ means ‘favour’ and the whole word therefore translates as to ‘exhort favour’.  In other words, ‘being influential’.  Not every leader or manager needs to be – or can be – ‘charismatic’ with its ‘wow the room’ implication but to be engaging is vital.

Eight of the techniques of engaging others, are verbal:

  1. using metaphors;
  2. easy-to-remember three-part lists;
  3. telling stories;
  4. drawing vivid contrasts;
  5. asking rhetorical questions;
  6. expressing moral conviction;
  7. reflecting an audience’s sentiments;
  8. and setting high but achievable goals.

The rest are non-verbal: raising and lowering your voice, letting your feelings show in face and hand gestures to reinforce what you say.

All these skills are based on Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric that can be broken down thus:

  • Ethos – establishing your credentials and building rapport;

This could be done during a presentation, by Eugene sharing his experience through anecdotes, for example, and reflecting the audience’s concerns and language.  Credibility may be established beforehand through reputation. Eugene may have a harder job if his audience think he had his hand in the pension fund, in which case, establishing credentials through colourful stories may be as productive as skiing uphill in slippers.

  •  Logos – persuading through logic

By showing cause and effect, before and after, theory next to experience, Eugene will be using logic to influence.

  • Pathos – persuasion with emotion

Try talking about something your are looking forward to in a flat, unmodulated voice with no movement. Then do this with gesture to underline points your emphasise with vocal colouring.  That is the addition of ‘pathos’.  Do be aware of cultural variations, though.  For example, more open, expressive movement would be expected in southern Europe than Northern Europe.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter,  a Professor from Harvard in her blog ‘Why you need Charisma’,  says that it’s how well you listen as opposed to being heard, that will make you influential.  For her, ‘charisma’ is the quality of silence as well as speech.

According to Professor Kanter, active listening is vital:  the questions you ask to seek understanding, reflecting back key phrases, steering a conversation through non-verbals.

Whether in a presentation or the Q and A afterwards both the verbal and non-verbal engagement will be vital.  In meetings, pitches, and interviews getting the balance between active listening and speaking in an engaging way will mean that you have presence.  Both Professors Antonakis and Kanter are spot on.




Your Emails Just Kill Me!

Hi Alex,

You haven’t given me the dates yet for when we’re meeting. Let me know this week, please.

Alison ‘

This email may seem rather too direct for some people, OK for others and a few may regard this as extraordinarily polite: there is a ‘please’ there, after all!

How direct we can be with others depends on the following:

  1. culture: some nationalities are generally more direct than others;
  2. context: maybe I’ve sent you 3 emails for the dates and you still haven’t got back to me;
  3. status: am I your boss, your supplier, your colleague, a trainee?
  4. personality: there are people you know who just ‘say it as it is’, and you can let it go. That comes down to trust: trust in the fact there’s no animosity behind the words. You don’t take it as a ‘stab’. Or you simply trust that they wouldn’t be so upfront unless there was, what you consider, to be some fairness there.

All this would depend on how well you know others and this could mean some trial and a couple of ‘errors’. Regard that as feedback and modify if it’s going to make a working relationship too prickly.

The Directness Thermometer

The Anglo-Saxon culture represents an email minefield for both natives and non-natives and even us Brits need to learn the art of ‘padding’ or softening requests, making them less direct.

However, be aware that ‘padding’ could seem non-committal in other cultures, so being more direct would mean that you actually get your requests fulfilled rather than brushed aside. So here’s a padding temperature gauge, starting with the most direct and progressing to the most polite…

Oy, give me that document now.
Oy, give me that document now, please
Give me that document now, please.
Do me a favour. Give me that document.
Could you please give me that document?
Would you be able to give me that document?
Can I ask you to give me that document?
(Despite the wording, you ARE actually asking for the document, not asking if you can ask for it. This is typical of an Anglo Saxon indirect request)
May I ask you to give me that document?
Would it be possible to ask you for that document?
Please, would it be – perhaps – possible that a chance may exist at some convenient point that you may be so kind as to give me that document?
(At this point, you’re on your knees, begging to a psychopath who has electric probes pointing at your head.  Maybe you’ll need this.  Maybe you won’t.  I’d say, think about re-evaluating the need for this relationship…)

There’s much reading between the lines in certain cultures such as Anglo-Saxon and South-East Asian countries. In his book, ‘Beyond Culture’, Edward Hall defines cultures such as the Japanese and Chinese high -context cultures.  One of the characteristics of such nations is that reading between the lines needs to be a common practice. These nationalities aren’t as literal, as ‘out there’ as cultures like the U.S or Germany, which Hall would define as low context.

How to Read Between the Lines

The Anglo Saxon culture can be a particular nightmare as it straddles both the high and low so here’s a short guide as to the (possible) meanings behind the words:

1.  You’ve misunderstood/You’re wrong!
= Maybe I didn’t make myself clear

2.   How many times do I need to TELL you?!/As I’ve told you…
= I do need to emphasise/Following my email (below)

3.   Why are you sending me this? Seems useless to me.
= Interesting. How do you see me using this?

4.    The client will think you’re (an idiot/going mad…)
= This may be perceived as (risky/unusual)…

5.    What changes! I seem to have lost my crystal ball.
= I wasn’t aware of any changes.

6.    Do this now. You should have done this yesterday.
= May I request you to do this now?

7.   What a rip-off! Do I look like a mug?!
= We’ll need to revisit the costings.

8.    I can’t see you tomorrow.
= I’m not sure I can see you tomorrow.

General rules are as follows:

  1. Instead of blaming others with a finger-pointing ‘you’, the Brits would tend to use the passive form (no person).  For example: “This may be perceived…”
  2. If there’s a problem to be solved, especially in negotiations, ‘we’ would be more likely, as in number 7.
  3. We’ll pad for requests, as in ‘May I request…?”.
  4. Substitute ‘Why?’ for ‘What would be the reasons for…’ or ‘How do you…’ as in number 2.
  5. Brits may use modals of probability such as ‘may/may not’ or phrases such as ‘I’m not sure that I can…’ as in number 8 instead of saying what they mean: ‘I can’t..’

Pick up the Phone

There are those who seem very off-putting in their email communication because they can’t see the effect their style is having or they hear their words differently to how the recipient is playing them back in their heads.

I know a delightful woman who is always irritating others with her email style.  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  She really is a lovely person but because she doesn’t know how to word her requests, she sounds aggressive.  Face to face, you get a completely different impression.

Tread carefully when you need to and you’ll be able to get your point across clearly without severing the relationship (unless you want to, of course..).  Do note, though, that sometimes the easiest action to take, if you do find yourself in a battle of words and wills, is to pick up the phone.

More often than not, hearing the intonation behind the intention will help both parties realise that an over-reliance on virtual contact may not be too constructive.


Need some help with how you communicate across cultures?  Click here and I may well be able to help you even more.

How to Piss People off in Emails

Here’s how:

  1. Ignore requests.
  2. Don’t address the sender when you reply. Just go straight into the message, or miss out the salutation.
  3. ‘Shout’ at them.

1. Dealing with requests – ‘Holding Emails’

Imagine you’re seeking information or clarification on something, so you fire off an email and nothing comes back. You wait a day, maybe two. Perhaps even a week later, zilch. Radio silence.What are you thinking? It’s a bit like being ignored. Actually, completely like being ignored and maybe you are.

Now, let’s look at this as if you’re the recipient. The sender may have requested copies/PDFs/figures/data etc and you just can’t get round to it at the moment. It’s really not the most important task on your ‘to do’ list. What with seeing clients, meetings, collating data for someone else blah, blah, blah, and there’s another 102 emails in your inbox that you have to sort through.

So, this is where ‘holding emails’ come in. Personally, I lerrrrvvvvve them. Here’s why:

  • they’re a way of making sure the sender knows s/he is on your radar and attention will be given to their needs;
  • the recipient still gets to maintain task priorities.

Buy time with a Holding Email

So here’s an example of how you’d write a holding email:

“Thanks for your email, Guy. I can collect the data that you need for Friday. Will that be OK?”

I know, holding emails aren’t exactly literary masterpieces. You don’t need to do an MBA to learn this but so few people write such vital messages.

Chances are that the suggested day will be fine.  If not, you can negotiate another time before someone throws a wobbly/their laptop at you. Habitually ignoring requests from colleagues will mean that you’re not a ‘go-to’ person and this will undermine their trust in you. The benefits of sending a holding email are as follows:

  1. it shows you know how to manage your time;
  2. you appreciate the importance of the requests of others and can balance these against your own priorities;
  3. you can be trusted and this helps build respect and team cohesion;
  4. when you’re in need of a bit of assistance, it’s more likely to come your way, rather than brushed under the carpet.

As you can see, they’re so simple and beneficial to both the recipient and author that there’s no reason why you can’t do them as soon as the moment arises.

2. Not addressing the recipient or avoiding a salutation

If you received message like this, would it strike you as diplomatic and assertive or aggressive and petulant? Would you want to make Pat a cup of tea or taser her?

Oh dear, Pat, did you get fired from Charm School?  I’ve changed names to protect the guilty. For your information, the slightly edited real message from a completely different company was the subject of a complaint about the author’s email etiquette, which resulted in her being fired for putting so many people’s backs up.

Goodbye, Pat, or, to adopt Pat’s style, ‘OFF YOU GO, PAT.’

Notice, how she starts with no salutation: ‘Hi’ would have been fine if she was too angry to manage a ‘dear’. Then, she goes straight in for the kill.

No names are OK – sometimes

If you’re in an ongoing conversation on the same topic with an individual, we now often treat this as an Instant Message (IM), and go straight into what we want to say, rather than start with a greeting.  This is now considered the norm. Do remember though, that if you’re starting a new topic with the same person, begin with a greeting, which of course, should include the name of the recipient.

So no plain, ‘Hi!’ but ‘Hi, Michael!” (Obviously, not Michael if that’s not their name!).

In a slightly longer email, mention the name again at the end. It gives the recipient a lovely warm glow of love in a completely professional way, of course, in the sense that there’s something more personal and direct about being named at the beginning and in the body of an email.

If you want something done, what better way than to have rapport because we’re more likely to do something for someone we like. Human nature. Of course, when that doesn’t work, you can put the pressure on, but that’s another ‘Tips ‘n’ Tools’ piece and not for here.

Even if you were to turn the heat up, I’d still use the person’s name at the end as it makes the message more direct, more personal.



You can assert yourself through the power of direct and courteous language. If you need help, hey, you know where I am. SO JUST GET IN TOUCH! (or ‘just get in touch!’)

So now, you can look forward to being able to avoid those misunderstandings with ‘tone of voice’ in emails.